MARION — Built to win now. Built to win tomorrow.
Built to last.
Marion has made a steady climb up the Southern Illinois softball ladder in coach Joy Neal’s eight years at the helm. A 4-2 South Seven Conference win Thursday over previously unbeaten Centralia at the Crisp Complex showcased what the program has become, and hinted at what’s in the future.
In upping their record to 11-1 overall and 2-0 in the conference, the Wildcats played clean defense and used timely hitting to overcome an early deficit. Ivy Smart’s two-run single in the bottom of the fifth inning snapped a tie, and her four-hitter in the circle made her 8-1.
Bigger than that was how Marion took an early punch from the Annies (9-1, 1-1) and never let it faze it. The Wildcats simply made adjustments offensively to better compete against pitcher Raegan Branon, a Bradley signee, and kept working the game until it went their way.
“She has very good spin, throws a good riseball and moves the ball around a lot,” Marion shortstop Hannah Nalley said of Branon. “We didn’t see many pitches the first couple of innings, but we made our adjustments.
“Even when girls were making outs, they were staying pumped up and getting the next hitter pumped up. Everyone in the dugout had each other’s back.”
It was Nalley that provided the first big hit for the Wildcats in the third inning. With one out, Abbi Sherrard beat out an infield hit. Heaven Lawrence dropped a sacrifice bunt and was safe when an error enabled Sherrard to reach third.
After Keira Hance was plunked by an 0-2 pitch to fill the bases, Nalley chased two runs home with one calculated swing. Wanting to take Branon the other way, Nalley stayed behind an inside pitch and drove it to the fence in left-center for a 2-1 lead.
“She puts in a lot of time here and after hours,” Neal said of Nalley’s work ethic. “I was glad to see her have a successful game.”
That success wasn’t limited to offense. Nalley put on a defensive tour de force, making three key plays that turned Centralia back.
In the first, after a Brylee Dukes double put the Annies ahead two batters into the game, they had two on with one out for Branon. But a hard grounder to second baseman Kaylee Evans became a 4-6-3 double play when Nalley’s rifle throw to first just nipped the runner.
In the fourth, Nalley gloved a Branon grounder and looked Linsey McMillan back to second before making the throw to first. When McMillan tried to advance, first baseman Presley Barnett zinged an accurate throw to Hance at third for an inning-ending 6-3-5 twin-killing.
Nalley, who’s verbally committed to Louisiana-Lafayette, saved her best play for the seventh inning. Branon’s pop fly to left-center looked like a leadoff single until Nalley made an over-the-shoulder grab, made even better by gusting winds howling from right to left that made any popup or fly ball an adventure.
“Defense was amazing today,” Nalley said. “I felt so connected with my team, and we felt really good. Communication really helped us.”
Lawrence might have come up with an even better play in the second. Taylor Henson’s sharply-hit one-out grounder into right became a 9-3 putout when Lawrence charged the ball and fired a bullet to first, beating the runner by a full stride.
Given that help behind her, Smart retired nine of 10 hitters after her first inning struggles, and finished the game knocking off her last eight batters. She also fought off a full-count pitch from Branon, blooping a single over first with two outs in the fifth to score Hance and Nalley with the game-winning runs.
Most importantly, the game showed what Neal has built. A lineup with potentially three Division I signees and a Division II signee also offered talented freshmen and sophomores, making contributions and learning from more experienced teammates to boot.
“We’ve had a lot of these kids at the junior high level, where they’ve won state championships,” Neal said. “They’ve kept maturing and they’re learning, but most of all, they’re coachable. They bought in when they were in sixth grade, and they’ve become juniors and seniors, and they’re keeping it together.”
Consider this foundation built.